It was a fact that Phil had organised for Matthew to die. Phil took full responsibility but there would be no trial. He could have confessed but he chose not to. On principle.
When the Reverend Matthew Patterson and his wife, Penny, moved in next door they seemed a pleasant enough couple to Phil and his wife, Stephanie, or Steph as she preferred. Sure, they had a yappy dog that barked at shadows but there were plenty of those in the neighbourhood already, said Steph. She invited them around for welcome drinks one late afternoon and encouraged Phil to show off his garden, especially his burgeoning veg patch.
Penny oohed and aahed appropriately and went through the motions of protesting about the carry bag of surplus bounty presented to her by Phil. Matthew’s contribution was to offer to come over one day and show Phil how to build a decent trellis for his tomatoes and spent an inordinate amount of time with Steph admiring her extensive plantings of bee and bird attracting plants.
Phil arrived home from golf one Saturday to find Matthew in the garden with Steph. He heard her throaty laugh as they planted seedlings together. ‘Oh, hi, darling. Matthew brought us some plants that he thinks will grow much more successfully in our soil. Oh, and we’re invited to dinner. He’s quite the chef Penny tells me.’ Matthew feigned modesty but indeed the meal was restaurant quality, unlike Phil’s eclectic repertoire of tasty but filling fare.
He noted Steph’s chosen dress featured just enough cleavage to suggest hidden treasures but not enough to seem like a tart. And she found everything Matthew said either interesting or hilarious. Phil couldn’t remember that last time Steph did anything but roll her eyes at his jokes. She used to meet them with gales of laughter when they were young.
Penny noticed that Phil had noticed and did her best to engage him on books and politics but her understanding of both was shallow and cliched in comparison to Steph. To interrupt the boredom, he suggested helping her with the cleaning up, which she agreed to far too enthusiastically. In the kitchen, she flirted with him clumsily and he made sure all his actions indicated that he wasn’t interested. When she started to cry over the dishes, he retreated to the dining room and suggested it was time to go.
Driven by Steph and Matthew (who’d now decided she liked to be addressed by her full name, Stephanie, because that’s what Matthew did), the couples spent increasing amounts of time in each other’s homes and mixing socially. At the church fund-raising dance, Matthew and Stephanie were quite the stars of the show on the dance floor as Phil and Penny wall-flowered and helped out with the catering.
Phil had become the chief cook after he retired, much to Steph’s delight. Self-taught, with occasional guidance through disasters from Steph, he’d become more than competent. One evening, after dinner, Steph said ‘That was lovely, darling, but I think it’s time you broadened your culinary horizons. The menu is getting a bit samey, don’t you think? Matthew has some excellent recipe books you might want to borrow.’
Some days later, Phil and Steph were hosting the Pattersons and Phil had prepared a three-course repast of some distinction he thought. The obligatory compliments followed, with Matthew adding that he found roast beef more flavorsome when allowed to rest a little longer. And of course he no longer did dessert because he was trying to stay trim.
The wine that Phil had chosen so carefully was pronounced interesting by Matthew, who’d brought a bottle from his own cellar, which he ostentatiously opened with a corkscrew when they arrived, to let it breathe. When it was served, Matthew gave a small lecture on its provenance, which seemed to deeply fascinate Steph.
‘So, Phillip, I know that you were a public servant but we’ve never heard exactly what you did.’
‘Oh, nothing particularly special, Matt. Admin mostly.’
Steph interrupted with ‘Sorry, Matthew, he can’t tell you. I don’t even know for sure. Official Secrets and all that.’
‘So, Phillip, if you told me you’d have to shoot me?’
‘Something like that, Matt.’
Penny proffered ‘Matthew. He prefers Matthew, don’t you, darling?’
‘Oh, I’m not really fussed. Besides, we’re with friends.’ said Matthew, fussily.
Phil said casually ‘So what were you before became a Rev, Matt. Sorry, Matthew.’
‘An accountant. I know, pretty boring.’
Penny pooh-poohed that. ‘Nonsense. He was quite high up in one of the Big Three firms.’
Steph said gaily ‘Well, we know where to go for our next tax return then.’
‘So, Stephanie, what about you, career-wise?’ Matthew responded.
‘Oh, nothing special. Clerical work mainly. In the same Department as Phil. That’s where we met. Love in the stationery store and all that.’
‘What about kids?’
‘Never got around to that somehow’ said Steph quietly.
Penny jumped in with a nervous laugh ‘Matthew, stop being so nosey. Besides, it’s time we were toddling off. Sunday services tomorrow.’
‘I hadn’t forgotten, Penny. Somehow these things do stick in your mind’, Matthew responded, drily, and stood up to leave. Phil was glad that for once he would be spared the latest successes at Oxford by their daughter, Astrid, and whatever position on the greasy pole their son, Atticus, had risen to in an American software company.
As they were leaving, Steph said ‘You guys should play golf one day.’
Matthew quickly demurred. ‘Love to but it never looks good for clergy to be seen on the golf course when there are so many urgent parish matters to attend to. Besides I’d be pretty rusty.’
Phil asked ‘So what did you play off before you got ‘rusty’, Matt?’
‘Scratch actually but that was a long time ago, in my mis-spent youth.’
‘Of course it was.’
Not long after, Steph announced one Sunday morning that she was off to church. While full atheism would have implied that they even thought about religion, agnostic was a label they would both have lived with comfortably until now. ‘What brought that on?’, said Phil levelly.
‘I don’t know’ Steph said vaguely. ‘Nothing specific but I’ve been feeling lately that there’s something missing in my life and I’m wondering whether belief in something spiritual might fill that gap.’
‘So, are you going to try them all out and tick them off one by one until you find enlightenment?’
‘Don’t be so bloody shallow and facetious’ she hissed as she slammed the door behind her.
And lo, it came to pass that Matthew’s congregation suited her just nicely, thank you very much, and she was soon deeply involved in parish matters, often requiring meetings that ran quite late. And of course with her high-level clerical skills she became quite the little helper to poor over-worked Matthew.
Blind Freddie could see where this was going, so Phil called in some favours from his old colleagues and what a cornucopia of conniving calumny came cascading down the phone line. Certain unexplained irregularities with previous parish accounts, some scurrilous rumours about his involvement with the prettier young girls undergoing confirmation and, shock-horror, a penchant for sweeping married lady parishioners off their feet and leaving them stranded and bereft. It would appear that Matthew’s predilections were nothing if not catholic. Oh, and it emerged that Matthew’s position in one of the Big Three accounting firms was considerably minor and after he was ‘let go’ he suddenly found religion.
Now, an impulsive man might have confronted his wife with these factual inconveniences and lifted the veil from her eyes. But Phil anticipated that Steph would dismiss these as defamatory slurs cooked up to denigrate a pillar of the community and would have none of it. Besides, he still loved Steph deeply and wanted her back, contrite or not, under the same roof and seeing out their ageing years together.
Thus it became clear to Phil that Matthew had to die. However he needed to die in a manner that stripped his character bare for all to see, especially Steph. So Phil bided his time and thickened his plot.
A certain Maggie Althorp had a reputation amongst the parishioners for being ‘common’ and brazenly flirting with the few men that attended services and, of course, the Rev himself. The flirtees with any brains above their waistline stayed well clear because they knew that Maggie’s husband, Max, was an insanely jealous and very violent customer, who tended to be moved by the spirit that could be obtained in a bottle and not in a church.
For a man with Matthew’s tumescent ego, it was relatively easy to send a message to his private email from a fake email account, signed M, inviting him to provide her with some discreet personal counselling this Wednesday afternoon at the family’s beachside cottage, and to have him take the bait. Maggie received an email along similar lines, signed M, offering to clarify certain aspects of the church’s teachings at the same rendezvous, where they were unlikely to be interrupted by a person of unpleasant temperament.
Phil watched Matthew wave goodbye to Penny on the appointed day and call out that he hoped this regional parish meeting wouldn’t last too long. He felt momentarily sorry for Penny but rationalised that she was better off without this pathetic excuse for a man, who would inevitably leave her one day anyway.
Having calculated the time at which his unwitting dupes would be the deepest into their ‘conversation’, he rang Max anonymously from a phone box to alert him as to his wife’s tryst, then waited five minutes to alert the local Police to an altercation at the cottage, where a man carrying a firearm had been seen entering.
Suffice to say, Max completed the deed as expected and was seen to be dragging his screaming wife to his car when the Police arrived. When Max failed to drop his weapon as instructed, the Police used lethal force to settle the matter. In the space of five minutes, both Penny and Maggie were free.
And Phil and Steph were able to get on with their quiet life in retirement.